Presidential racism has been almost constantly in the headlines this month.
A newly emerged recorded phone conversation between current and future presidents almost 50 years ago is a reminder that racist beliefs held by highest-ranking elected officials were once considered private.
In October 1971, the United Nations voted to recognize the People’s Republic of China. Reagan, then the governor of California, despised the U.N, which he described as a “kangaroo court”, The Atlantic reported. When China was voted in, the Tanzanian delegation started dancing in the General Assembly.
Reagan phoned President Richard Nixon at the White House and vented about the delegates who had sided against the U.S. “Last night, I tell you, to watch that thing on television as I did,” Reagan said. “To see those, those monkeys from those African countries—damn them, they’re still uncomfortable wearing shoes!” Nixon laughed.
Nixon kept retelling his version of what Reagan had said and the story changed as stories do. “This bunch of people who don’t even wear shoes yet, to be kicking the United States in the teeth … It was a terrible thing,” Nixon told Secretary of State William Rogers.
“Nixon didn’t think of himself as a racist; perhaps that’s why it was so important to him to keep quoting Reagan’s racism, rather than own the sentiment himself,” Tim Naftali wrote in The Atlantic. “But Reagan’s comment about African leaders resonated with Nixon, because it reflected his warped thinking about African Americans.”
Nixon taped the phone conversation with Reagan. The tape became the responsibility of the Nixon Presidential Library, which Naftali directed from 2007 to 2011. The National Archives released the tape of the conversation in 2000 and the racist portion was withheld to protect Reagan’s privacy.
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Reagan died in 2004. A court-ordered review of Nixon’s tapes was completed in 2018. Two weeks ago, the National Archives released the October 1971 conversations involving Reagan.
Nixon believed in a hierarchy of races, Naftali wrote. Whites and Asians were higher up than people of African descent and Latinos. He believed it wasn’t racist to think of Black people as inferior to whites as a group.
“Nixon’s racism matters to us because he allowed his views on race to shape U.S. policies—both foreign and domestic,” Naftali wrote. “His policies need to be viewed through that lens.”
These new tapes are a reminder of the racism that often lay behind the public rhetoric of American presidents, Naftali wrote. Unlike Nixon, Trump doesn’t believe he needs to hide his racism.
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